Virtually every survey of the public’s choice for themost important persons of the second millennium includes the name of IsaacNewton. A poll published in the 12 September 1999 issue of the London SundayTimes Magazine ranked him first, even aboveShakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin and similar canonized stars.Among his crowning achievements were his research starting around 1670 on lightand color (eventually published in 1704 in his book Opticks
Putting physics on a firm experimental and mathematicalfoundation—an approach coined Newtonism—earned Newton the ultimateaccolade as father of modern scientific thought. However, a revisionisthistorical analysis, based in part on the discovery by the economist JohnMaynard Keynes of a huge trove of unpublished papers and documents, has ledsome scholars to consider Newton the last great mystic rather than first modernscientist. While his work in physics and mathematics set in motion the Age ofEnlightenment, revisionist historians point out that neither as a person nor anintellect did he belong to it. As debunking of some of the hagiographysurrounding Newton commenced in the latter part of the 20th century,it became evident that Newton spent much more time on alchemy and mysticaltheology than on “science”—composing over 1 million words oneach of these two endeavors, much more than all his writings on physicscombined! His alchemical library was huge and his alchemical experiments,though kept secret from all but a few intimates and servants, consumed much ofhis waking hours for decades. Even his religious convictions had to be keptsecret, because his faith in Arianism (holding that Christ and God are not ofone substance) was considered heretical within the Anglican Church.
Born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo’s death,Newton was so convinced of his supernatural powers that he once constructed avirtual anagram of his name (Isaacus Neutonus) in terms of “God’s holy one” (Jeovasanctus unus). His position as a fellow ofTrinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a chair nowheld by Stephen Hawking), his subsequent elevation to the important governmentrank of Master of the Mint, and conferment of a knighthood by Queen Anne allshould have required open adherence to and even ordainment in the AnglicanChurch. Yet Newton managed to sidestep it throughout his adult life, with opendefiance only surfacing in 1727 on his death at age 85 when he refused the lastrites. Even that noncompliance did not prevent a state burial in WestminsterAbbey nor the unveiling there in 1731 of a monument in just recognition of histowering contributions to science and of his services to England.
As a person, Newton was not only deeply complex, but alsomorally flawed. Adjectives that could be used to describe facets of hispersonality are remote, lonely, secretive, introverted, melancholic, humorless,puritanical, cruel, vindictive, and perhaps worst of all, unforgiving. Even oneof the most famous quotes attributed to Newton, “If I have seenfurther it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” is open to different readings. Often cited as a sign of hismodesty, it has also been interpreted as the ultimate poisonous lacing in adisingenuously polite letter addressed to one of his bitterest scientific foes,Robert Hooke, of pronounced dwarfish stature. It is worth noting that theorigin of the sentence long antedates Newton since it can be traced to at leastJohn of Salisbury in the 12th century.
The character trait most relevant to the present play“Calculus” is Newton’sobsessively competitive nature. Frank E. Manuel wrote in 1968 in one of thegreat Newton biographies that “the violence, acerbity, anduncontrolled passion of Newton’s attacks, albeit directed into sociallyapproved channels, are almost always out of proportion with the warranted factsand character of the situations.”While this statement characterizes some of Newton’s best-known bitterconflicts such as the ones with the physicist Robert Hooke or the AstronomerRoyal, John Flamsteed, it applied in spades to the decades-long battle with aGerman contemporary of almost equal intellectual prowess, Gottfried Wilhelm vonLeibniz.
In addition to his monumental contributions to physicssummarized in his PRINCIPIA, Newton was also an inventor of the calculus (whichhe first called the “method of fluxions”). Up in Parnassus or downin his grave, he would immediately interject: “A
But priority can only be determined after a definition ofthe term has been agreed upon. No such unambiguous definition has been producedin science, where multiple independent discoveries occur all too frequently.For instance, in the play “Oxygen”(written jointly with Roald Hoffmann), we asked whether the ultimate accoladefor the discovery of oxygen—an event that triggered the modern chemicalrevolution—should be assigned to the first discoverer, to the person whopublished first, or to the one who first understood the nature of thediscovery. In the case of the calculus, it is now clear that Newton was firstin terms of conception, but Leibniz first in terms of publication. But since inNewton’s mind and words, “second inventors have no right
The calculus priority struggle—with each protagonistultimately charging the other with piracy—has, in the words of WilliamBroad, “been fought for the most part by the throng of little squiresthat surrounded the two great knights.”It is through the story of some of Newton’s “little squires”that the play “Calculus”tries to examine one of Newton’s greatest ethical lapses.
The stage was set by Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a brilliantnatural philosopher from a Geneva family, who became Newton’s mostfawning disciple. Indirect but reasonably persuasive evidence of a homosexual(though unconsummated) attraction between Newton and the 20-year younger Fatiohas surfaced in recent years. At times called “the Ape of Newton,”Fatio shot the first brutal salvo openly accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. LikeNewton, Fatio never married; like Newton he indulged in alchemical experimentsand religious fanaticism; but unlike his mentor he went way beyond him in thatregard by openly associating with the Cevennes Prophets who spoke in tonguesand became possessed during religious ecstasies. Fatio’s accusation ofLeibniz was not pursued, partly because of the former’s religiousexcesses, but in 1708, another loyal follower of Newton, John Keill (secretaryof the Royal Society as well as “a war-horse, whose ardor was sointense that Newton sometimes had to pull in the reins
Such a blatantly biased procedure, though clearly to becondemned, was nevertheless to be expected, considering that Newton asPresident of the Royal Society had indirectly appointed the committee. Butfurther scrutiny reveals much blacker details.
The composition of the Committee that never openly signedthe document, did not become acknowledged for over 100 years. Not only do wenow know the identity of the eleven Fellows, but even more importantly, theirdates of appointment. The famous astronomer Edmond Halley, the physician andwell-regarded literary figure John Arbuthnot, and the little-known WilliamBurnet, Abraham Hill, John Machin and William Jones were all appointed on March6, 1712. Francis Robartes (Earl of Radnor) was added on March 20, LouisFrederick Bonet (the King of Prussia’s Resident in London) on March 27,and three more members, Francis Aston and the mathematicians Brook Taylor andAbraham de Moivre on April 17.
Why should these dates be significant? Because it ispatently impossible that at least the last three members, appointed on April17, could have had anything to do with a lengthy and complicated report published7 days later! In point of fact, none of the eleven Fellows was authoriallyresponsible, because Newton himself had written the report! And in spite of theclaim that the Committee consisted of “Gentlemen of severalNations,” only two out of theeleven—Bonet and de Moivre—could be categorized as foreigners. Inthe case of Bonet, so little is known of him that even the Sackler ArchiveResource of Fellows of the Royal Society does not contain his date and place ofbirth, although German and Swiss archives do shed some light on him. Thequestion can rightfully be raised why such a diverse group of Royal SocietyFellows, some of them of major distinction, should have allowed themselves tobe so blatantly manipulated by Sir Isaac Newton—ostensibly to be chosenas watchdogs and then so quickly transformed into barkless showdogs.
Calculus providessome speculative insight into this scientific scandal through the personalitiesof John Arbuthnot, Louis Frederick Bonet, Abraham de Moivre and Nicolas Fatiode Duillier with most of the biographical references firmly rooted inhistorical records. And while the particular meeting of the playwrights ColleyCibber and Sir John Vanbrugh in Calculus is invented, both are historical characters whose respective plays Love’sLast Shift and The Relapse: OrVirtue in Danger and their finalcollaboration, The Provok’d Husband,